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Public is loser in Albany’s email games

I’m an email hoarder. Digital space is cheap. Search capabilities are vast, and, well, you just never know when you’ll need that office memo sent two years ago.

So to me, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s policy of automatically deleting messages from the state’s email system after 90 days was just plain nonsensical. Not to mention bad for open government.

Plenty of New Yorkers felt the same. Four out of five polled by the Siena Research Institute in March felt that government email should be saved for a significantly longer period of time. Public outcry pushed the Cuomo administration to change its mind.

On Friday, his staff relented. After months of criticism, the administration announced that it would end the automatic-deletion policy in favor of giving employees the power to manually decide which messages to delete.

The decision was a small ray of sunshine, but not enough to illuminate the cloak of darkness that has fallen over our government.

“It doesn’t undo the damage that was done,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, one of a dozen groups that called on Cuomo to do more than just roll back the wrongheaded policy. They want the state to keep all employee email for seven years – just like the federal government.

Cuomo’s change of heart won’t bring back all those emails deleted while the 90-day policy was in place, and under the new policy, we still have to rely on government employees to make the call on whether an email should be saved.

Why should you care? Because email is one of the few ways we have to understand the inner workings of public policy. If you haven’t noticed, there’s a tendency among Albany types to treat just about everything like a state secret.

Even the state’s Freedom of Information Law has gotten tougher to use as agencies regularly drag their feet in responding to public requests. The law gives citizens broad powers to obtain public records but lacks the teeth needed to force the government to hand over records without a court fight.

“What we see happening is that people simply don’t pursue FOIL appeals because agencies are nonresponsive,” Kaehny said. “If the agency doesn’t respond the first time, then the person just gives up. The flaunting of FOIL happens all the time.”

Cuomo’s staffers pointed fingers Friday at the State Legislature for exempting itself from many of the provisions of the information law. It is a ridiculous notion that legislators have written themselves out of the rules, but sadly, that’s not even the most pressing need when it comes to making New York government more open.

Cuomo could start by simply defaulting to saving all email for an extended period, ensuring that records are available when citizens go looking for them.

It’s not exactly the kind of issue that has people flooding the Capitol. Perhaps that’s the problem.

“Transparency is an issue that has very, very broad but not very deep support,” Kaehny said. “So you don’t tend to have mobs with pitchforks outside the Governor’s Office when they destroy public records and other things like that, but what does happen is it undermines the public’s faith and confidence in government.”

It’s not as if Albany is a place where we can afford to lose any more faith in government.